Blog Arts

DON McCULLIN AT TATE BRITAIN

5 February 2019 - 6 May 2019​

Robynne Limoges London Comments/  The 3Nines Arts
“Don McCullin near Onitsha, Biafra, Nigeria, 1968”©️Gilles Caron

There is no contemporary war photographer whose work lives alongside me, shadowing me, enriching me, frightening me, more deeply, with such constancy, as the work of Don McCullin. 

McCullin is, of course, much more than a war photographer, meaning that war is not his only subject, but suffering is: humanitarian disaster, noncombatants caught up in chaos and indiscriminate killing during conflict, the sufferers of societies' failures. Even the Somerset land that he has photographed in its seasons of winter, which bridged trips to war zones, seem to be metaphors for the suffering of our land during this era of careless guardianship. And while at first he thought that landscapes could free him from emotional carnage he could not stop remembering, that they would not stand up to him and force him to confront moral thoughts, he said "later...in the end...I realised that, there, everything I was looking at had a political dimension too: dairy farms closing, more land being taken up for housing...so even my landscapes are political…"

The well known phrase, 'you are what you were', rings true for Don McCullin. His childhood in London was impoverished, emotionally conflicted, deprived. He tells of his mother running out to the street to select clothes for him that had been tipped directly onto the pavement from a relief lorry, then exhausting herself to get them clean. At five years old he was evacuated to Somerset. Many London children were sent to the countryside in the hope they would escape the bombings of London. But here is the catch: while his sister was sent to a village's most wealthy household, he was sent to a council house. She lived amidst beauty and servants; he amidst deprivation and social exclusion. He has described his feelings when he would go round to his sister's accommodation and look through the window as perhaps the beginning of what would be a life-long approach to the world: "an attempt to get as close to my subject while remaining invisible myself".

McCullin's father died at forty when McCullin was only thirteen. He left school at fifteen, took to washing up in the dining car of a steam train. He has described a kind of drowning in a type of insecurity, psychological darkness, shame. Importantly he has also described his life, the beginning of his life as preparation for looking into, looking at, other people's tragic lives in the wars. As he said, "I certainly understood poverty and violence." He also understood about staying aware, compassion or the lack of it. He understood feeling deep empathy, the intimacy of sharing through his lens unimaginable moments of cataclysm. I think he also deeply believed in the individual, and in his responsibility to bear witness to each individual's torment.

McCullin discovered photography as the means by which he could become and remain meaningful in1959. The Observer newspaper published a story about a gang and its murder of a policeman in north London. McCullin had lived with or around gangsters and murderers as a boy. Adjacent to the newspaper article was McCullin's photograph of the gang. To be paid for that photograph gave him not only much needed money, but significantly, a sense of achievement. With his name (in an interview he refers to it not as his name but his father's name) beneath that image, he felt he was able to restore meaning, significance to his father's name. To me, McCullin's photographs of people fulfill that same objective: to give meaning, significance, to each and every face captured by his lens.

When McCullin was twenty-eight, he travelled to Cyprus to report on the conflict between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. He became enthralled by the excitement that war seems to instill in all its active participants. Over time, that excitement paled, a sense of horror prevailed and the moral difference between dramatic excitement and tragedy became hauntingly apparent to him. The 'moment' of transformation occurred to him while he was photographing in Biafra in 1969. He walked into a school house where he found 800 dying children, dying a most pitiless death. That scene and the scenes he bore witness to in Belsen haunt him. He has recounted those encounters: here they were in front of him, praying that he would bring reprieve, aid, a tangible gesture of humanity and what did he have to offer? Two Nikon cameras around his neck.

I find myself cheering, albeit with gritted teeth, when reading McCullin's statement about wanting his pictures in the Sunday Times magazine to shove themselves into the sightline to the newspaper's readers, 'to make their lives uncomfortable'. I would add, to jolt them out of the luxuries of having time, reading, drinking coffee, sharing a table with family, sunlight streaming through washed windows, out of their clean, pressed clothes. Now, of course, the images of horror, of war, of atrocity, abomination run as an endless stream across our consciousness. Do they make us turn in the direction of greater humaneness, does our empathy transform itself into action, do we extend our hand to the next, who might have fallen, stumbled, do they make us recognise, acknowledge, dress the wounds of those suffering? I fear that more recent audiences, bombarded with a plethora of wrenching documentary images, might offer up a shake of the head with eyes closed, blame governments, corruption, dictators, maniacs, 'those poor people', get on with their own daily lives. Perhaps that is as it must be.

For McCullin, 'daily life' could not have been more different than that of his readers. He was himself imprisoned in Idi Amin's Makindye military hellhole in Uganda. He was on the ground in missions with soldiers in the jungles of Vietnam and Cambodia. His Nikon sacrificed itself to a sniper's bullet. McCullin covered the Biafran war, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the humanitarian devastation in Bangladesh, the Lebanese civil war, so many other conflicts. When not in the middle of foreign conflicts, McCullin photographed post-war Britain, homeless communities in East London, industrial towns in northern England and their beleaguered inhabitants. Wars of deprivation...in his own country. That is his advice to 'wanna' be' war photographers: "go around the cities of England where you will find all the social wars".

I believe that once seen, McCullin's scenes and screams and tears and bleeding never left his consciousness, certainly not his subconsciousness. They accreted war by war, into an atmosphere, a physical atmosphere around him, where each breath taken 'pruffts' up the dust of heartbreak, suffering, the madness of chopped limbs and land-mined limbs, bombed-apart bodies. The Battle of Hue haunts his nights in a particularly vivid way.

McCullin speaks frankly about feeling, perhaps, guilt for a deep, abiding empathy he could not use to cure, shame at having the amazing good fortune of being able to rise up one hundred feet above the Yemen desert, flown to a neutral zone in a Black Hawk helicopter escorted by an Apache gunship. 

Don McCullin will be 4 days short of his 84th birthday when this retrospective opens at Tate Britain. He was 82 when in 2017 he climbed to the top of a shelled building in the city of Homs, Syria. This photographic assignment was made into an excellent BBC4 documentary titled The Road to Palmyra

With a bit of assistance McCullin not only makes the summit of the Syrian ruin but takes one of many signature shots of Hom, a scene of utter desolation. He was on a significant road trip with architectural historian Dan Cruickshank, starting from government-controlled Damascus. His goal, to photograph the ancient city of Palmyra, which ISIS had tried with such evil dedication to obliterate. They did not succeed. We know so because Don McCullin has seen the remains, walked the ruins and he has photographed it. 

“Suspected Lumumbist Freedom Fighters being Tormented before Execution, 1964” ©️Don McCullin
“Northern Ireland, Londonderry, 1971” ©️Don McCullin
“Early Morning, West Hartlepool, County Durham, 1963” ©️Don McCullin
“Dew Pond, Somerset, 1988” ©️Don McCullin
“Albino Child, Biafra 1969” ©️Don McCullin
“Shell-shocked U.S. Marine, Hue, Vietnam, 1968” ©️Don McCullin
“Limassol, Cyprus, 1964” ©️Don McCullin
“Early morning at the Kumbh Mela, Allahabad, India, 1989” ©️Don McCullin
“Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin, 1961” ©️Don McCullin

Tate Britain

Millbank

London SW1P 4RG

+44 (0)207 887 8888

Opening Hours: Monday to Sunday 10.00 to 18.00, daily.

Please note: There are restrictions for taking certain size or types of bags into the gallery.

Some items may be deposited in the cloakroom.

See website for Tate Britain at www.tate.org.uk/visit/tate-britain for information about the Don McCullin exhibition.

Resource: "Don McCullin: The Interview" can be found in Tate Etc.,Issue 45, Spring 2019.

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